Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why I Hate "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on."

The tune that we identify with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was composed in 1856 by William Steffe. It was adapted to the lyrics known as "John Brown's Body" which was sung by abolitionist-minded forces of the Union Army early in the war. After a visit with President Lincoln late in 1861, Julia Ward Howe was encouraged to write a new song to be sung to that familiar and catchy tune. Her lyrics were published in early 1862 and became very popular during and after the war years.

The lyrics draw heavily on Biblical language and it seems obvious that Howe interprets the scripture to support the cause of the union army against the seceeding southern states. The "terrible swift sword" of the Union Army has been unsheathed against the south. Her eyes have seen "the coming of the Lord" in the actions of Lincoln's army. The cause of the North is "God's righteous sentence." God is "sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement seat." Union soldiers, should "die to make men free" as Christ "died to make men holy"(this is often now changed to "live to make men free" and so obscures the hymn's actual context of bloody battle). In a verse often omitted in modern hymn books, Howe says "I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:'As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.'"

John Brown, heralded in "John Brown's Body," was perhaps America's first domestic terrorist. From his murders in "bleeding" Kansas, Brown came to Virginia in 1859, attempting to capture the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and incite a slave rebellion throughout the south. He was financed in this endeavor by a group of six wealthy abolitionists from New England. The "secret six" included Samuel Gridley Howe, the husband of Julia Ward. John Brown's cause became the cause of Julia Ward Howe.

I hate the song for several reasons. First, I think it distorts the scripture, and with that, the redemptive purposes of our Lord. Secondly, I think it distorts the historical reality of the causes and conduct of the War Between the States. Thirdly, I think the sentiment of the song was used to validate the wanton destruction of private property throughout the south and I imagine most who sing it today are oblivious to the pain and suffering inflicted on the families who suffered the rape of the South. Finally, I fear that such martial-flavored hymns, sung in our churches and at political gatherings, reinforce a tendency to think that our nation's military policy is probably approved by God.

The thing that ties all of these together is the use of Scripture, faith, "God," to justify armed agression. The War Between the States did not begin in an effort to end slavery, though later in the war Lincoln and the abolitionists used this purpose to justify the continuation of the war, and it helped to give moral force to the position of the north against the south. It was found that many men could more readily be convinced to die for the objective of "making men free," when they perhaps were not so ready to die "to preserve the union." In modern times, it is easier to sell the glory of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan as "establishing democracy" rather than as a war for less nobler, but perhaps more realistic objectives.

I am not a pacifist. I support classical Christian just-war theory. Among the conditions of just war is that the war be conducted as a defensive action against an agressor and as an effort of last resort. I believe the war of the United States against the southern Confederacy can not be justified under Christian just war doctrine. The Southern states appealed to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the example of the colonies who left their "union" with great Britain for independence. Jefferson said the colonies "are, and of right out to be, free and independent states." Like the colonies at the time of the revolution and in order to maintain the independence won at that time, the southern states withdrew from the union, and sought to do this peacefully. Lincoln called upon the remaining states to give soldiers to form an army to force the seceeding states to return to the union and to prevent other states from moving toward secession. War, rather than diplomacy, was Lincoln's preference, and he repeatedly refused to entertain overtures for truce with the south until the surrender in 1865.

The war became a war of conquest, with the terror of Sheridan and Sherman seen as the "terrible swift sword" of God's justice as farms and homes were burned and pillaged throughout the south.. But after the war is over, what are the warriors to do? Soon the tactics of total war were waged against the American Indians. After the Indian wars, there continued U.S. military agression against Spain in 1898, intervention in Europe in 1917, then World War II (which may well have been justified in its beginning, but not in its conduct), then Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Eisenhower warned us to beware the "military-industrial complex." As one of the greatest generals of the 20th century, he knew that the forces that lead to war are often simply money and power. "Who gains" is the question that must be asked. Who gains in what appears to be a permanent state of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is an ugly truth that often those with the most to gain are those who already have power and wealth, such as the manufacturers of arms and munitions. The gainers are also the factory workers who make the tanks, planes and helicopters and keep the economy moving here at home, and indeed all of us who benefit from the trickle down of a war-economy. And of course the politicians who win votes and maintain their positions of power and influence with their support of war have much to gain. Who loses? The common soldier and their families, and the poorer inhabitants of the lands we bomb and invade, are the ones who pay the heaviest price of war. And our children and grandchildren lose, as they are burdened with an ever-increasing debt as we borrow trillions of dollars to keep the engines of war turning.

I hate the Battle Hymn of the Republic because I think it represents one of the great evils of modern times, an evil that appears again and again in history. That is, it celebrates and encourages a false sentiment about war. God's truth marches on, indeed, but not, I believe, in the wars of Lincoln, Wilson, Johnson, Bush, or Obama.

Let us pray:
ALMIGHTY God, the strong Tower and Refuge of thy people; We entreat thy favour upon the officers and all who are enlisted in the service of defence of our country, upon land, and on the water, and in the air. Ever spare them from being ordered into a war of aggression or oppression. Use them if need be, as thine instruments, in the defence of our national life and liberty. But restrain, we beseech thee, the greed and wrath of man, that wars may cease in all the earth. Deepen in the hearts of our defenders the spirit of peace; and, for his sake, may they ever love and serve the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Ed,

    This is a very good post. You didn't give one of the most popular nicknames for the war - the war of Northern aggression.

    The great Stonewall Jackson said before the war that if this man Lincoln wins the election of 1860 there will be war. You read the book called "Stonewall" by the Va. Tech professor. It is very informative.

    Too bad the battle flag, stars and bars, is most commonly associated with Southern red necks.